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The Journal Gazette

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Tuesday, July 02, 2019 1:00 am

Editorial

On the wrong track

State needs to get on board with rail plans

The Hoosier State train made its final run from Chicago to Indianapolis Sunday, marking the end of daily passenger rail service between the two cities. Fort Wayne residents, who have been without any passenger service for nearly 30 years now, can empathize. But they also should consider how the loss of the Hoosier State line affects efforts to restore service here.

In short, it appears Gov. Eric Holcomb and the Indiana General Assembly have little interest in rail as a transportation option in the Crossroads of America. They need to hear from Hoosiers who want to see passenger trains share in the support now afforded highways, trails and a direct flight from Indianapolis to Paris.

Holcomb signaled early this year he was not interested in continuing to subsidize the Hoosier State line, which saw passenger numbers fall from 33,930 passengers in fiscal year 2014 to 27,876 in fiscal year 2018, according to the Indiana Department of Transportation.

Admittedly, the service has been hampered by the national rail service company's performance, but Amtrak showed marked improvement in the past year. Between February 2018 and February 2019, the Hoosier State was on time 80.5% of the time, beating an 80% on-time or early target for all of its lines.

Loss of the daily service applies not only to Indianapolis residents, but also to residents of rural communities who accessed the Hoosier State line at stops in Crawfordsville, Lafayette and Rensselaer. Helen Hudson, a Crawfordsville resident, told Trains Magazine the state has missed an opportunity in neglecting smaller communities that could benefit from daily rail service.

“It's especially frustrating when we've watched our neighboring states like Michigan and Illinois do it so well,” Hudson told the publication. “It changed the life of Bloomington-Normal, Illinois; that's an equivalent distance from Chicago as Lafayette and Crawfordsville are in Indiana. We would have benefited economically and from young people choosing to settle here if they could easily commute.”

Another Crawfordsville resident, Paul Utterback, questioned the state's priorities.

“You're telling me our governor can't cough up $3 million a year twice in a $33 billion two-year budget?” he asked. “In the state of Indiana, the legislature says if you don't make enough money to own a car and aren't physically able to drive, you don't matter. Instead, we subsidize a daily Delta Airlines Indianapolis-Paris flight by $3.2 million a year – that works out to about $110 per person. To me, it's a regressive application of transportation dollars.”

Fort Wayne City Councilman Geoff Paddock, a board member of the Northern Indiana Passenger Rail Association, said the group had received some positive comments from Holcomb's staff as it pursues high-speed rail service on a Columbus, Ohio, to Chicago line that would include stops in Fort Wayne, Warsaw and other cities in northern Indiana. But he acknowledged the state's commitment to passenger rail is “disappointing.” The association pursued a feasibility plan at the urging of then-Gov. Mitch Daniels' administration, and it was encouragement from then-Gov. Mike Pence's administration that prompted the group to move ahead with an environmental impact study.

Paddock said the Hoosier State line's demise “compels us to say there is all the more reason to help make the case for service in northern Indiana.”

It will take many more voices, however, to move Indiana officials to support passenger rail as it is supported in neighboring states. Steven Coxhead, president of the Indiana Passenger Rail Service, noted Michigan is expanding service, with high-speed rail on state-owned tracks. Wisconsin subsidizes several daily trains connecting Milwaukee and Chicago. Illinois has “a well-developed internal rail network” and is considering expansion to other cities. Missouri supports multiple daily trains connecting St. Louis, Chicago and Kansas City.

Direct flights to Paris undoubtedly are a draw in attracting and retaining some employees, but support for transportation shouldn't overlook residents of the Hoosier cities and towns who could best be served by rail. Tell the governor and legislators to get on board.